The USA at a Glance
The United States: Traffic Regulations
Getting a US Driver’s License
US American road rules vary by state, making it difficult to define a set of rules which you must obey when planning on driving in the States. In the majority of states, you must be 16 years of age to legally drive. Some states first grant a restricted license which limits the number of passengers young drivers can carry for the first six months or one year after they obtain their license. Restricted licenses also prohibit driving between certain hours of the night, except to travel to and from work.
You are entitled to drive in the United States for one year with a foreign license as a visitor, provided your license is from a country that is part of the UN Convention on Road Traffic and is written in English. If not, you should apply for an international driving permit in your own country and always carry both the permit and your original driver’s license on you. However, once you have established residency in a US state, you usually have 30-60 days to transfer your foreign license to one for the US state you are living in. Even if you do not intend to drive very often, it is still a wise choice to apply for a US license when living here, as it is not only used for driving purposes, but as a general means of identification. Visit your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website for more detailed information on exchanging your foreign license.
Applying for a US license is not very difficult. You simply need to bring your original license, passport, social security number, proof of state residency and a passport photo to the local DMV office and take a written test to prove your knowledge of the traffic signs and signals of that state. To study for this test there is a “driver’s handbook” which is available online on most state DMV websites. In some states you may be required to take a driving test as well. A few countries, such as Canada, Germany and France, have reciprocity agreements with certain states, so that you don’t have to take either the written or driving test. Depending on the state it was issued in, your license needs to be renewed every few years.
Looking for even more in-depth info on driver's licenses? Our article on getting a US driving license has further details.
Basic Driving Rules
Although variable, the general speed limit on highways across the United States is 65 mph. Speed limits within cities differ by zone and type of street. The best approach for staying away from speeding tickets, which policemen (also called “cops”) seem to enjoy handing out ruthlessly in the United States, is to keep your eyes peeled for speed limit signs, which are usually located short distances apart.
Seatbelts are required for drivers and front seat passengers; some states require all passengers to wear seat belts. You will see signs along major roads and highways reminding drivers to “buckle up”. Remember to also strictly adhere to child restraint laws. Drivers are responsible for all passengers under 18. Babies and small children are not allowed to sit in the front seat due to the danger of suffocation by airbags. Most states do not allow children under the age of 12 to sit in the front seat and require you to use appropriate restraints or adjusted seatbelts. Again, you should check the state law.
You must stop for school buses on either side of the road whose red lights are flashing, as children may be crossing the street. You will be severely penalized if you disobey any school crossing and school zone speed limits, as these are often monitored by undercover cops or hidden cameras.
The rule of thumb when getting pulled over by a policeman is to drive to the side of the road, turn off your engine, and put both hands visibly on the steering wheel in front of you. Do not try getting your license or registration out or attempt to exit the car before being told to do so by the cop.
Undercover policemen are not only positioned in school zones, but periodically, especially in college towns or larger cities, they do random alcohol controls. This means that you may be pulled over to the side of the road out of the blue and requested to show your registration. In some cases, you may have to take a breathalyzer test.
“Driving under the Influence”
The legal limit of blood alcohol content permissible while driving is 0.8‰ in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In most states it is also illegal to have any open containers of alcohol in the vehicle while you are driving. If the driver is pulled over and open bottles of alcohol are found in the car, the police officer has a right to force the driver to take a breathalyzer test to confirm his or her intoxication. It would be unwise of the driver to object to this.
The penalty for being convicted of driving under the influence, colloquially known as “getting a DUI/DWI”, can be anything from major points on your license, a hefty fine of anywhere between $500 and $1000 for first convictions, community service, jail time, and in most states, a suspension of your license for a minimum of three months. As mentioned before, laws vary by state, so be sure to check the local Department of Motor Vehicles for specific regulations and suspension laws.
In our guide on safety and security in the US, we also take a closer look at crime and law enforcement.